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Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Laos Sea

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The first time we laid eyes on the Laos Sea, it was hard to process that the vast expanse of turquoise water we were looking at was man made. As the only landlocked country in southeast Asia, Laos was not supposed to have a sea.

We’d come to the town of Thalat via Vientiane by way of a torturous overnight sleeper bus. For budgetary reasons, Gareth and I had shared a bed that might have been reasonably comfortable for an average sized Laotian, but with both of us standing over 6 feet tall and being fairly broad in the shoulder we battled constantly for space. And each time the bus broke down – which it did 5 times during the night – the air-conditioning system would shut off, making that battle an especially sweaty one. By the time we pulled into the station, 18 hours later, we were both furious with each other in that strange way that happens when neither person has actually done anything wrong and both parties know they have no valid reason to be angry.

All was forgotten after a shower and a coffee, however, and an hour later we were already laughing at the ridiculousness of the journey. We had endured such a long drive in order to skip over roughly 700 km of southern Laos that was, while certainly beautiful, not what we had come to Laos to investigate.

Building a Sea

In the late 1950’s, Laos was in the midst of an energy crisis; they simply did not have enough electricity to meet their national needs. Less than a decade after achieving independence, and poverty stricken as it was with an unproductive economy the nation had few options at its disposal. In the words of a RAND Corporation report from the period, Laos was “hardly a nation except in the legal sense.” The answer, it seemed, was hydropower.

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the "battery of Southeast Asia"

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the “battery of Southeast Asia”

Seeking to turn Laos into a stopgap between the rising communist states of North Vietnam and China, a group of 10 nations, with the U.S. at the forefront, donated the nearly $100 million necessary to build the country’s first hydroelectric dam. Situated on the Nam Ngum river, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries and along which nearly 1 million people live today, the reservoir created by the dam when it was completed in 1984 became the largest body of water in all of Laos. With a surface area of 400 square kilometres it was substantially larger than any of the country’s natural lakes, earning it the colloquial nickname of the Laos Sea.

The dam itself, a squat wall of grey concrete, was nothing much to look at, but the surrounding area was more like a tourist attraction than a restricted power plant. Where we had expected security checkpoints and barbed wire fencing, grass-covered parks and paved walkways invited visitors to stand near the dam’s base and take photos.

But when we circled behind the dam to first set eyes on the reservoir, we were surprised by just how beautiful it was. It looked more like the Caribbean than an industrial side effect, and its surface was dotted with idyllic looking micro islands, complete with coconut palms and sandy beaches.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Floating party barges dot the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam's resevoir. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Floating party barges dot the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir.

The almost artificially blue surface was dotted with party barges that crisscrossed the calm water, dropping vacationers on uninhabited islands to enjoy a swim and a picnic. Even from high in the hills overlooking the reservoir we could hear their sound systems pumping out local rock ballads.

Expensive SUVs were parked throughout the village of Baan Thaxan, the small community that served as the main jump off point for the wealthy weekenders coming mainly from the capital, Vientiane. $100 per night boutique hotels with blinding white walls and sparkling glass facades jutted out from the mountainsides, no doubt providing lovely sunset views for its guests.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.  The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.

Despite the picture postcard surroundings, however, we knew that there was an underlying conflict of interest. As nice as the hotels must have been for those coming for a weekend of sun and relaxation, they stood in glaring contrast to the rest of Baan Thaxan which was made up mostly of tin-roofed shacks and wooden fishing boats. Whenever development of that nature took place, we knew, someone was usually on the wrong end of progress.

When the Water Rose

“My village used to be surrounded by rice fields,” 50-year-old Mai Boun Ya Vong told us, “but it was turned into an island by the dam.” We met Vong in the village of Baan Thaxan as he was unloading his day’s catch of fish and he took a short break from his work to talk with us. He didn’t seem angry or resentful, rather he spoke like someone explaining unchangeable universal truths.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

Despite the fact that his family had found itself unexpectedly living on an island, for a time they prospered. Many of the fish that had lived in the Nam Ngum river also flourished in the reservoir and their community was well placed to catch them. In fact the population expanded as more and more people moved to the island, which had become one of the most productive fisheries in the area – though at the expense of the river itself, which had been badly damaged ecologically. While some people still fished in the river, Vong told us, most shifted their activities to the reservoir.

This rapid growth turned out to be the village’s demise, as the government did not like the idea of a large population in a remote and relatively inaccessible area that they could not effectively monitor or control. Eventually officials visited to say they it was unsafe for people to live without electricity – somewhat ironically as the nation’s largest electricity generator was being built less than a kilometre away – and told them they must prepare to relocate.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir near Thalat, Laos. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir near Thalat, Laos.

The government resettlement area, however, was away from the water and so therefore badly placed for the needs of a fishing family, and Vong’s father rejected the deal. They had to abandon their home and buy a new plot of land in Baan Thaxan, which was far more developed in terms of infrastructure, but also made for more difficult fishing.

“Life here is different,” Vong told us. “There we had lots of fish and life was easy, but there was no electricity or roads. Now we have power and roads, but it’s much harder to make money [from fishing].”

When we asked Vong which he preferred, he had no decisive answer. “I don’t know which is better. They’re just different.” His wife, however, had no such indecision. For her, an island life of abundant fish was the better choice and she said she would immediately return if given the choice.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the resevoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Despite the government’s policy about living on the islands of the reservoir, Vong told us that a few people still had homes on some of them. Wanting to see for ourselves, we chartered a boat and headed out on the sea. After an hour of motoring we spotted a cluster of small wooden huts on one of the sea’s central islands, tucked into a small inlet hidden from view of the shore.

Si Phan, a 62-year-old fisherman who split his time between the island and a small house in Thalat, was the only person on the beach when we jumped off the boat. When we asked him the same question as we’d posed to Vong, he answered quickly: “If I had to choose between only living here or my house in Thalat, I would live here. There are no loud parties and I can fish easily. If you live in the city you always have to go markets and restaurants to get what you need, but here I have everything, like fish and vegetables. I even have enough power from solar panels to watch TV at night.”

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks.

For locals it seemed as though the Nam Ngum dam was neither entirely good or completely bad. Many of them had lost their homes, but in exchange they had gotten access to modern infrastructure. On one hand the Nam Ngum river had been badly affected and was no longer the productive fishery it once was, but on the other they had gained a sea.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat. While some of the catch comes from the Mekong, the majority of local fishermen have left the river to fish in the massive resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat.

As the sun began to set the driver of our boat urged us to head back to shore, and so we said farewell to Si Phan. As we left we asked why he had to buy his own solar panels when there was such an abundance of power nearby. “The government says the islands are too difficult to get the lines to,” he responded. To us this seemed odd as Nam Ngum’s electricity was sent hundreds of kilometres away to power the nation’s cities and we figured that “difficult” was a substitute word for low priority.

In parting we asked if he would be able to watch TV that night, and he looked skywards as if trying to remember how much the sun had shone that day.

“Maybe.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , |

Culture, Infighting, and an Uncertain Future

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

Since visiting Koh Sralay, a community located downstream of the dam that faced reduced fishing prospects which would quite possibly derail their family livelihoods, we wanted to learn about the challenges ahead for people living upstream, on the site of the dam’s future reservoir. With the addition of Meach Mean, our crew size had grown to six (including a driver and translator), and we packed ourselves into the back seat of an aging Toyota Camry for a two hour drive to the remote village of Kbal Romeas.

As we neared the village, the roads became increasingly treacherous and were dotted with deep mud holes from recent rains. Eventually the two-wheel drive car could go no further with such a heavy load of passengers and the driver ordered us out. Meach called ahead to the village and arranged for a small fleet of motorcycles to drive out and shuttle us the last few kilometres.

Kbal Romeas was home to 136 families of Bunong, an ethnic minority tribe who have inhabited the area northeast of Steung Treng for around 2000 years. Though Buddhism was making inroads in Bunong communities, they were predominately animists who believed in living in harmony with nature, and who fed themselves almost entirely from natural resources. The only road leading to the village was unpaved, and the locals owned no cars. Bunong do not believe in fencing in their domesticated animals, instead trusting that their herds will make their way home each night. Piglets ran openly through the community, competing with chickens for mangos that fall from the trees above. Some Bunong do not speak fluent Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. These were the people who had the most to lose if Sesan II was built.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden.

“This whole area will be 10 metres underwater,” Meach told us upon entering the village. “36 000 hectares will disappear during the first rainy season after the dam is finished.” As the proposed date of completion for Sesan II is 2017, there was not much time left.

The Red-Blue Divide

“There are three reasons I am against the dam,” 29-year-old Dam Samnang told us (he spoke no English and so was thankfully spared from the unfortunate irony presented by his name). “It provides no direct benefits to people in this community, it will destroy all our houses, and it will ruin the river system so that we can never come back.” Though he spoke simply, his words were loaded with emotion.

Samnang went on to describe his feelings of frustration over the community’s lack of power to protect their own lands, something he attributed partially to a national ambivalence towards minority tribes like the Bunong. “Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” he explained. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

A Bunong family in Kbla Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in Kbal Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia.

With so much history and culture at stake, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the Bunong  would unanimously oppose the dam. But as we learned over the course of our visit, the community had been the target of a systematic divide-and-conquer campaign. Samnang told us how even his most basic attempts at mobilizing his community had been met with fierce opposition, culminating with a visit from the local authorities who formally banned them from signing petitions or hosting environmentally related gatherings. What legal basis they had for doing so were unclear to Samnang, and he suspected that they had no way of enforcing what they said. More likely, he thought, it was a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the villagers and sew divisions within the community.

Perhaps the most important factor in splitting the community was the resettlement package on offer from the company that owned Sesan II – Sinohydro Resources. A wide variety of factors decided the amount on offer for those willing to relocate, but the basic premise was simple: go away and receive money, land, or a new house – in some cases all three.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The blue paint indicates that the family has rejected the resettlement package offered by the Chinese dam builders. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

For many, including Samnang and his family, no amount of money would cause them to peaceably abandon their home, but for those in the village whose economic situation was desperate, the package was harder to turn down.

Widows and the extremely impoverished were some the most susceptible to Sinohydro’s offers, Meach Mean told us, and more than a third of the community had already agreed to be relocated. “A few years ago everyone rejected the deal,” Meach explained, “but when [the authorities and company representatives] kept coming back, more and more accepted. Poverty forces them to accept.”

Once a family had accepted, a sign was spray painted in red on the front of their house, proclaiming their decision publicly. In response, those who remained adamantly opposed painted “NOLS2DAM” (No Lower Sesan II Dam) on their own homes, making it possible to walk along the village’s central road and know at a glance who was staying and who was going. A handful of families, including Samnang’s, had gone one step further, using green paint to write “we will fight until we die, we will not leave” in Khmer script.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro - the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam - and will vacate their property. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro – the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam – and will vacate their property.

Progress at What Cost?

As we prepared to leave Kbal Romeas, our last destination on the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, we couldn’t help but fear the worst. Despite strong voices of opposition from people like Samnang and Meach Mean, the wheels of development seemed to be inexorably turning in Cambodia, regardless of the impacts on those living from nature in traditional ways.

Being outsiders, it was not our place to decide what developmental policies are best suited to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, but it was difficult to stomach the thought that a cheaper electricity bill was worth destroying a two thousand-year-old culture.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river.

“I’m worried for my parents and I’m worried for my kids,” Samnang had said in one of our last conversations. “This dam will be a disaster for us; our destiny is in trouble. They say they want to develop Cambodia, so why do they destroy our homes?”

Our time with the Bunong brought the realities of modern progress to the forefront of our consciousness. Most people living in modern urban environments have come to expect a certain level of comfort, and life in major cities would indeed be difficult without the conveniences electricity brings – air conditioning, refrigeration, and cell phones, for example. In all but the most extreme cases, even those living below the poverty line make use of power in one way or the other, and you would be hard pressed to find a city-dweller anywhere on earth who would not gladly welcome a cheaper electricity bill. But the sources of those luxuries often remain out of sight, far away from the bright lights of the cities in places like the one we had just come from; someone or something, whether an entire Bunong village or an uncommon species of fish, would usually suffer to keep those lights running affordably.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas.

When would the cost become too high, we wondered? At what point would the social or environmental costs become too great to justify the benefits? And who would be responsible for making those decisions?

These were the questions in our minds as we prepared to say goodby to Cambodia for the time being and head towards the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to begin the third leg of A River’s Tail.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , |

Blocking the Flow: The Sesan II Dam

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

We heard the phone ring in the darkness (Nokia’s ubiquitous descending cadence adapted from Francisco Tárrega’s 1902 classical guitar composition) well before we could see the boat driver who answered it.

Allo?” came the groggy voice. Though most Cambodians are notorious early risers, clearly 4 a.m. was not a time the man enjoyed.

We had met him the previous afternoon while walking along Steung Treng’s riverfront promenade and chartered his boat on the spot to take us to the nearby island of Koh Sralay, where we hoped to gain insight into how the human-river interactions in sparsely populated northern Cambodia differed from those further south along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

After we were settled onto the boat’s wooden benches, the driver stood in the shallow water along the river’s edge and spun the bow towards open water, clucking his concern about the lack of visibility around the high powered flashlight clenched between his teeth.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. Residents of Koh Sralay are entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. 

An hour later, the sun still not yet risen, the tip of the island appeared out of the gloom. The outlines of numerous fishing boats visible only for being slightly blacker than the water they floated upon. We were searching for one fisherman in particular, whose wife we had spoken to the day before as she sold catfish in Steung Treng’s market, but in the grey darkness it was nearly impossible to distinguish individual faces – let alone identify a man we had been told to seek out based solely on a name and a loose physical description that could have applied to nearly every fisherman on the river.

“Thon Min?” As our translator called out the man’s name to each boat we passed, invariably they waved us further downriver while offering few specifics. When we eventually found him it was nearly 6 a.m. and his morning’s fishing was all but finished. Not long after, he headed for home.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. The Chinese owned Sesan II dam will heavily affect Thon's ability to fish from the Mekong.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. 

“Only one fish today,” Thon told us as he tied his boat up to a thicket of mangrove trees. “People from upriver came last night and used electric fishing nets. Whenever they do this we catch nothing the next day. But this is still enough.”

The Last Bastions of Sustainability

“Here we can feed the whole family without buying anything, other than spices and oil.” Thon told us as we sat cross legged on the floor of his large stilted home. “When we catch more fish than we can eat, we sell them at the market, and we produce enough rice and vegetables to feed our family.” Considering that Thon’s family counted 10 members, this was no small feat.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay.  His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay. 

From crop watering to protein intake to drinking water, virtually every aspect of Thon’s life was connected to the health of the Mekong and it’s nearby tributaries – and it was the first time in the 3 months since we began the project that we had talked to someone who didn’t report a drastic decrease in water quality. Compared to the dwindling resources and environmental degradation we had witnessed on the Tonle Sap Lake, or the extreme poverty we encountered in Phnom Penh’s Cham village, Koh Sralay seemed like a positive example of how the river had supported life in Southeast Asia for millennia.

“On the Tonle Sap there are too many people and too many fishermen,” Thon explained when we asked him why Koh Sralay was flourishing in comparison to the Tonle Sap. “This is bringing down the quality of the water and the numbers of fish. There they fish every day of the year, but here we follow the seasons.”

Kuch Hen, 45, recieves a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt Mekong fish populations and sediment flow.

Thon Min’s wife Kuch Hen, 45, receives a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam.

Following the seasons, Thon explained, meant that they fished only when the river was in the process of rising or falling with the coming and going of the monsoon rains – the times when fish were moving to or from their spawning grounds. During the rest of the year, they hung up their nets and turned to inland farming instead, giving fish stocks a period of respite. By contrast, fishermen on the Tonle Sap often set their nets multiple times a day, every day of the year.

Though there were almost certainly examples of irresponsible river stewardship taking place (the clandestine raiding by upstream fishermen toting electrified nets Thon had mentioned, for example), in general this was a prosperous symbiotic relationship between civilization and the environment. But a threat loomed on the horizon, one with the potential to completely and irrevocably derail the lives of people like Thon.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. Thon and his family are self sustaining, supporting themselves entirely from river fishing and agriculture. The Sesan II dam, when completed, will heavily impact fish populations and river sediment, heavily affecting families like Thon's.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. 

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia. The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng. 

 

Stopping the Flow

“We worry about the dam,” Thon told us before we left Koh Sralay. “If it breaks, a big wave will come and destroy this island, and I don’t know how it will affect our fishing.”

The Sesan II hydropower dam is arguably Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. When completed, the Chinese-owned dam will block two of the nation’s most important Mekong tributaries – the Sesan and Sekong rivers. The ensuing damages would be varied and devastating. Migrating fish would be unable to reach their breeding grounds; reduced sediment flow would disrupt the fertility of downriver farmland as well as increase erosion; a vast reservoir would displace thousands and inundate huge swaths of forest. An entire way of life could be lost, very possibly forever.

“The river is for life, for Cambodia, and for community identity,” Meach Mean told us over a bowl of fish soup. An independent environmental activist and the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (a grassroots organization that mobilizes disparate villages to rally against the project), Meach is one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. “Rivers create a lot of our culture [in Cambodia], including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet. If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just fish.”

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

Wanting to see the physical manifestation of the controversy, we asked Meach to take us the to the dam. With security checkpoints stationed along the roads leading to the construction site, we had to hire two small wooden fishing boats to circumvent the road blocks. It was more than an hour’s journey against the river’s current, during which time we saw little evidence of development, save a few small fishing hamlets scattered amongst the tree lined banks. It was hard to imagine that something so destructive could be lurking in such an idyllic and remote place.

“There,” Meach said as we rounded a bend. At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but gradually the shapes of industrial cranes emerged on the skyline, towering over a wall of concrete. Initially it seemed like the river was completely blocked, but as we drew nearer we could see that a small channel remained open. As our boats made for this gap, I asked Meach what would happen if we were confronted by security: “What do you think? We leave very quickly,” was his simple response.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. Mean is an environmental activist and founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an organization that works to mobilize affected communities against the construction of the Chinese-owned dam that will displace thousands, innundate 36 000 hectares of land, and heavily impact local fishing and farming practices.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. 

The boats dropped us behind the dam in order to minimize the chances of being spotted by construction personnel before we had a chance to see the site. After a sweaty scramble up a loose stone slope, we found ourselves standing on a gravel road, the entire building site in front of us. The immensity of the project was hard to process, stretching beyond what our peripheral vision could take in. For a moment we just stood and stared, but Meach quietly urged us to get our pictures as quickly as possible as a security patrol could be along any minute. Not wanting a confrontation we heeded his advice, snapping pictures furiously. When a dump truck rumbled past a few minutes later and the driver immediately began speaking into his radio, we knew it was time to leave.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. 

We skidded back down the rocky embankment and boarded our boats for the drive back. “How did that make you feel?” Meach asked. Overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried were all words that entered our minds. Having read a great deal about the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong and its tributaries had prepared us intellectually, but the reality of seeing such a massive structure nearly blocking an entire waterway was another matter.

We were mostly quiet and reflective on the hour long boat back towards Steung Treng. The following day we were headed to a village of indigenous Bunong people, whose homes sat directly in the path of the dam’s proposed reservoir and we wondered if we had just seen the future destroyer of people we hadn’t yet met.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

March to the Arang Valley

My friend and fellow Phnom Penh photojournalist, Thomas Cristofoletti, called me a week ago and asked nonchalantly if I wanted to go walk into the jungle with a group of forty monks. Truth be told, I really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about – but it seemed like a fantastic proposition nevertheless. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question anyways, and I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself had I said no.

Several days later, when I was crossing rivers in the black of night, it seemed less fantastic.

The monks, working in partnership with several non-profit organizations, were heading to the remote Arang valley in western Cambodia in order to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. The only way to get to the village of Pra Lay, where the bulk of the monk’s demonstration was scheduled to take place, was along a winding dirt path of unknown distance.

In the beginning we were under the impression the walk would be about 16km, which is, though strenuous on an uneven jungle road, very manageable. Halfway through the walk, rumours began to circulate that the actual length of the trail was over 30km. In the end, the most agreed upon number seemed to be around 25km, but that element of not knowing how much longer made things all the more tiring when we were still walking at midnight.

I was wearing tough leather boots, while the monks wore battered leather or rubber sandals. Add to that the fact that Buddhist monks do not eat anything after 12 p.m., and so had been walking for more than eight hours on empty stomachs. Together with a young monk, Prim Huon, I was the first to arrive on foot at 1.33 a.m; many of the older monks who had fallen behind didn’t straggle in until around 4.

Since I haven’t finished the editing yet and have spent most of the day slogging through audio transcriptions of the interviews I conducted, I’m just going to share a handful of images as a preview. The rest of the story will be ready by early next week.

This is one of the first cases where monks have come together in a large group to protest environmental destruction, and I look forward to sharing it more fully.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley, hoping to encourage the residents to think critically about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |